Hosting a big crowd on Thanksgiving has the potential to be disastrous. That’s because the usual approaches—roasting two average-size birds or one enormous one—are fraught with issues. Two turkeys require dual ovens—a nonstarter for most. And a single large bird hogs the oven, making it off-limits for other dishes. A 20-pounder can also be a real challenge to maneuver in and out of the oven and nearly impossible to flip during roasting to promote evenly cooked white and dark meat. What’s more, a large bird tends to overcook on the exterior while the interior comes up to temperature. And no matter how many birds you roast, there’s still the last-minute scramble to make gravy from pan drippings. Finally, you must compose yourself for tableside carving.
But keep reading, because things are about to change. All the stress melts away if you think more like a professional chef. You see, a good chef is a master at breaking down complex dishes into simple components and then devising a timeline to prepare as much as possible in advance. Once I started thinking in those terms, all sorts of possibilities opened up.
My first move was the biggest game changer: Instead of roasting two whole turkeys, I separately cooked two bone-in breasts and four leg quarters. This meant that I could use different cooking techniques for each to guarantee juicy, tender results. Working with parts also presented some terrific make-ahead opportunities.
I sketched out a plan: I would start by braising the leg quarters up to a few days before the feast. Low, slow braising promises tender, moist dark meat since it gives the abundant collagen time to turn into supple gelatin—and the reheated dark meat would taste just as good as freshly made. What’s more, a flavor-packed braising liquid (broth, white wine, fresh herbs, and aromatics) would be an ideal base for a big batch of gravy that I could also prepare in advance.
With the dark meat and gravy taken care of, I would salt the breasts the day before Thanksgiving to season the flesh and hold in moisture. Then, the only tasks left would be roasting the breasts (this takes 2 hours, freeing up precious oven space) and reheating the thighs, drumsticks, and gravy. Brushing the skin of the braised dark meat with melted butter and cranking the heat to 500 degrees would encourage browning and crisping so all the parts would arrive at the table looking as if they had come from two whole birds.
I executed my plan without a hitch. At serving time, the parts were a breeze to carve and made a gorgeous presentation on a platter. Moist, tender, well-seasoned white and dark meat? Check. Bronzed, crisp skin? Check. Sumptuous gravy? Check. Cool, calm, and collected host? Check, check, check.